We’re all guilty of going out for a stroll—whether it’s for exercise or for buying groceries—and then mindlessly unholstering our phones to check the latest news alert or to scroll Instagram. Well, a fascinating new study reveals why gazing down at your phone while walking in a public space among other people isn’t just a bad idea for your safety and for your mental health, but it also may disrupt the world around you in ways that may surprise you.
Scientists in the age-old field of “crowd psychology” have long worked to understand how human beings move and interact when they come together in large groups. They’ve observed how crowds don’t move randomly when they collide in places such as football stadiums, parks, shopping malls, but create natural patterns. Using visual cues, we humans operate in groups much like other animals, including flocks of birds, to create a subtle yet powerful order that is actually quite effective. “Human crowds engage in a rich variety of self-organizing behaviors, [and] often exhibit fascinating ‘global’ pattern formations that spread throughout a group over a range of inter-individual interactions,” observes the new study, which was published this week in the journal Science Advances.
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For instance, it may come as a surprise to learn that moshpits at heavy-metal rock shows aren’t actually all that dangerous and disorderly. Quite the opposite. In the past, scientists discovered that organizational structures fall into place that individual moshers aren’t necessarily attuned to in the moment. “There’s a logic to this seething mass of bodies, though it might not be visible to outsiders,” writes the BBC. “This logic keeps fans from being trampled. Remarkably, it even means that moshers moving in a rough circle often will end up right where they started.” In other words, they work.
This same logic essentially applies to all public spaces. But according to the new study—which was conducted by a professor at the Kyoto Institute of Technology—just a few individuals thrown into big groups in public spaces who are looking at their phones essentially throw off the otherwise natural movements of the entire group. What’s more, they slow down basically everything. “Mobile phone distractions significantly influenced overall walking speeds and the onset of lane formation, especially when the distracted pedestrians were in the front of the group,” concludes the study. “We observed that both distracted pedestrians and nondistracted pedestrians performed sudden large turns or steps to avoid imminent collisions, implying that they had difficulties navigating.”
The people who looked at their phones walked differently. “Distracted people also did not move smoothly,” observes The New York Times, summarizing the study. “They took big steps sideways or dodged others in a way that the researchers rarely saw when there were no distractions. The inattentive pedestrians in the experiment induced that behavior in others as well; the people who weren’t looking at their phones moved in a more choppy fashion than they did when there were no phone-gazers. It appeared that a few people not giving their full attention to navigation could change the behavior of the whole crowd of more than 50 people.”
This isn’t the first study, of course, to shed light on some of the negative side effects of looking at your phone while walking. According to statistics compiled by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS), nearly 40% of all American say they have personally seen an “incident” arise from distracted pedestrians on their phones. “Today, more and more people are falling down stairs, tripping over curbs and other streetscapes and, in many instances, stepping into traffic, causing cuts, bruises, sprains, and fractures,” says Alan Hilibrand, MD, chair of the AAOS Communications Cabinet. “In fact, the number of injuries to pedestrians using their phones has more than doubled since 2004, and surveys have shown that 60% of pedestrians are distracted by other activities while walking.”
So, for the sake your health—and the quality of the foot traffic around you—be sure to stop and step to the side if you need to text or scroll Instagram. And for more things you shouldn’t do while you’re marching through the world on foot, be sure to read The Worst Mistakes You’re Making While Walking, Say Experts.